The Beverly Hillbillies

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The Beverly Hillbillies

One of the most durable television sitcoms and one of the most successful of the popular rural comedies at CBS during the 1960s, The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71) has withstood critical disdain and become a favorite with viewers in reruns. The Beverly Hillbillies is the old story of city slicker versus country bumpkin, of education versus wisdom; and though the laughs are at the Hillbillies' expense, in the end they almost always come out on top despite their lack of sophistication. This simple account of simple country folk at odds with city folk hit a nerve in the country and was reflected in a number of other shows of the era, including fellow Paul Henning productions Petticoat Junction and Green Acres. The Beverly Hillbillies premiered to a critical blasting and yet within a few weeks was at the top of the ratings and remained popular for the length of its run.

In the theme song we learn the story of Jed Clampett (Buddy Ebsen), a mountain widower. One day, while hunting for food, Jed comes across some "bubbling crude" on his land: "Oil, that is, black gold, Texas tea." Jed sells the rights to his oil to the OK Oil Company and becomes a millionaire. He is advised to move from the hills and go to California. Along with him he takes his mother-in-law, Granny (Irene Ryan); his daughter, Elly May (Donna Douglas); and his nephew, Jethro Bodine (Max Baer, Jr.). In California Jed's money is kept at the Commerce Bank, and along with the bank comes its president, Milburne Drysdale (Raymond Bailey), and his plain but smart assistant, Jane Hathaway (Nancy Kulp). Most of the interactions involve the Clampetts and the Drysdale/Hathaway team and occasionally Drysdale's snobby wife.

To keep a closer eye on his largest depositor, Drysdale arranges for the Clampetts to move into the mansion next to his house in Beverly Hills. Drysdale is obsessed with the fear that the family will move back to the hills along with their money, and he will do practically anything to assuage them and help them feel comfortable in their new home. This simple premise remains essentially unchanged through the bulk of the show's run. City life is not difficult for the rube man-child Jethro, who fancies himself a playboy or secret agent or movie producer and wants to keep his "hick" family from making him look bad. Elly May is the pretty tomboy who seems content to live in the city as long as she has her "critters." But crusty old Granny is not happy here, where she has lost her stature in society and she can no longer be the doctor, matchmaker, and keeper of wisdom. Most of the characters in The Beverly Hillbillies are caricatures and stereotypes of rich and poor. The only real exception is Jed Clampett, who alone seems to appreciate both sides.

The humor in this show comes from many sources. Initially, the jokes and obvious humor come at the expense of the Hillbillies. The ragged clothes, the fascination with even the most ordinary aspects of everyday life (they assume the billiard table is for formal dining and that the cues are for reaching across the table), and odd customs and ideas about high society based on silent movies that reached their hometown. But just as funny are the city folk, like Mr. Drysdale and his transparent efforts to get them to stay, or Miss Jane and her proper and humorous look. The Beverly Hillbillies is at its best in showing how foolish modern-day life looks through the eyes of the transplanted country folk. Jed is the center and the speaker, pointing out those things that seem to not make sense, and upon reflection we can often agree. While this show is no work of high art or philosophy, and the story lines and situations are often ludicrous and sometimes downright foolish, it does an excellent job of entertaining with a basic backdrop and characters for thirty minutes. In the weeks following the assassination of President Kennedy, this show had four of its highest rated shows, and some of the highest rated shows of all time. It is likely not a coincidence that people would turn to a simple comedy in a time of crisis.

The Beverly Hillbillies was finally dropped in 1971 as part of the deruralification at CBS. Several members returned in the 1980s for a reunion television movie, and in the 1990s, this was one of many old television shows to be made into a theatrical movie with an all-new cast reprising the old familiar roles. Hipper, more urban, with less focus on caricature, we see an updating of the premise again in the early 1990s on the hit show The Fresh Prince of Bel Air —this time with a nephew from the ghetto streets of the east sent to live in the sun and opulence of Bel Air and again pointing out the foolishness of the so-called better life.

—Frank Clark

Further Reading:

Castleman, Harry, and Walter J. Podrazik. Harry and Wally's Favorite Shows: A Fact-Filled Opinionated Guide to the Best and Worst on TV. New York, Prentice Hall Press, 1989.

Ebsen, Buddy. The Other Side of Oz. Newport Beach, Calif., Donavan Publishing, 1993.

McNeal, Alex. Total Television: A Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to the Present. New York, Penguin Books, 1991.

Putterman, Barry. On Television and Comedy: Essays on Style, Theme, Performer and Writer. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland, 1995.